In the past 30 years, climate change has completely transformed Südtirol, the German-speaking South Tirolean province of Northern Italy. Once known for its agricultural diversity, today, the region is dominated by a single monoculture: apple. One out of seven apples grown in Europe comes from here.

Set on the south side of the European Alps, Südtirol has both climatic and market advantages. The alpine climate with Mediterranean influences helps these fruits develop the proper color, sugars and shape, and despite the relatively dry climate and 300 days of sun per year — which help minimize many plant diseases— there are also ample water sources for irrigation. Südtirol’s central location also provides direct access to markets both in Italy and across Europe.

The industry has an annual harvest of approximately one million tons, but this economic boon comes with a cost. To satisfy a marketplace that requires blemish-free apples, apple producers use a lot of pesticides. In fact, because of intensive apple production, South Tirol, on a per hectare basis, now has the highest overall pesticide use in Italy.

Many livestock farmers in the region face long hours and financial struggles while apple farmers can potentially earn net incomes of 25,000-40,000 Euros per hectare, without the pressures of constant labor throughout the year. Given these financial realities, some livestock farmers are opting to raise apples instead of animals, while others have sold their land to wealthier apple farmers. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that agricultural producers in Italy pay no income tax, giving wealthy apple farmers a serious economic edge.

The rapid introduction of apple orchards in this region has presented a variety of challenges for local residents. When pesticides are sprayed, for example, they often escape their intended application area or target zone. These inefficiencies not only come at an economic cost to growers — pesticides cost money — but they may also present environmental and health risks for downwind residents.

When there’s wind, pesticides quickly drift away from their target areas. The Vinschgau Valley’s Vinschgerwind lifts these aerosol clouds with ease, transporting toxic cocktails of pesticides to unintended locations meters and even kilometers away. The results of this “target zone escape” or Zielflächenausbüxer threatens the health of community members and the economic livelihood of the region’s organic food producers as well as the livestock and grains of conventional farmers.

Enter Koen Hertoge. Originally from Belgium, Koen moved to Mals with his wife Martina and their two small children to live in Martina’s childhood home. Having worked in the travel industry, apples and pesticides were both outside his experience, but as he watched community activists mobilize against pesticide use, Koen recognized the need to help establish a network of allies and experts from outside the town. As a result, he and a colleague co-founded the Pesticide Action Network-Italy (PAN-Italia), bringing together a coalition of concerned citizens from across Italy to work together on advancing new policies that would address concerns and support initiatives such as those arising in Mals. Koen is now a board member and treasurer of PAN-Europe, working to heighten the visibility and successes of other communities working toward a pesticide-free future.

When pesticides designed to treat trees and vines are sprayed in high wind areas like the South Tirolean Alps, sometimes only 10-20% of these pesticides reach their Target Zone. What happens with the other 80-90%? Are winds strong enough to carry pesticides a few hundred meters or even several kilometers away to nearby towns like Mals, with its bike paths, homes and school playgrounds, where people gather and recreate?

According to the EU, pesticides prevent, destroy, or control a harmful organism (‘pest’) or disease, or protect plants or plant products during production, storage and transport. They may include herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, acaricides, nematicides, molluscicides, rodenticides, growth regulators, repellents, rodenticides and biocides.

What is a “Plant Protection Product” or PPP?

It’s simply another name for ‘pesticides’ primarily used in the agricultural sector but also in forestry to protect crops or useful plants. They contain at least one active substance (chemical, plant extract, pheromone or micro-organism) and either protect plants from pests and diseases, impact the life processes of plants, or destroy or prevent growth of undesired plants or parts of plants.

What is the difference between pesticides and plant protection products?

There is no difference—except that that there is often a stigma attached to the term “pesticide.” mainly due to the health and environmental impacts directly connected to its use, so practitioners of industrial agriculture often use the more positive-sounding term “plant protection products.”

Shakespeare once wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Can the same be said for pesticides? Regardless of whether they’re called—“pesticides” or “plant protection products”—when farmers use regulated chemical inputs like pesticides that inadvertently (either by rain, wind, or misapplication) extend beyond their farms’ boundaries, they may contaminate other crops, create environmental risks for flora and fauna, and unnecessarily expose people in neighboring communities to a variety of health issues.

For the people of Mals, an even more important question loomed, one of Pflanzenschutzmittelschutz. Was it more important to protect people or plants?

Alexander Agethle [shown here cutting hay] and his family milk about a dozen cows each year on Englhorn Farm, turning their organic milk into internationally acclaimed cheeses. For him, the risks associated with the toxic cocktails of multiple active and inactive ingredients from pesticides sprayed on nearby farms are too high—endangering the entire food chain on his farm, from hayfield to cow to milk to consumer.

“With 25 to 30 different pesticides sprayed (in a season), you get an enormous continued amount that is beyond evil,” states Johannes Unterpertinger, a pharmacist in the nearby town of Mals. “The totality of their combined active ingredients is still totally unexplored, which is why every pharmacologist, every physician strictly warns against consuming something like this. One can see the long-term effects.”

Farmers practicing Integrated Pest Management (IPM)—now euphemistically called “Integrated Fruit Growing”—typically rely upon well over two dozen different pesticides in one apple season, many of which are sprayed multiple times during the growing period. As a result, there is a mixing of substances that occurs as a result of 20-30 sprayings during the average year, creating a “toxic cocktail” not only of multiple active ingredients in the pesticides but also so-called “inactive” or “inert” ingredients. The toxic effects of single active ingredients for humans and other organisms are a serious point of concern and debate, while many of the inactive ingredients remain untested and are oftentimes listed as trade secrets. Recent studies on the inactive ingredients in glyphosate-based herbicides exemplify the concern, as many of them were found to contain arsenic.

Not only do we have very limited understanding of the negative human and ecological impacts of single pesticides, we know even less about the infinite number of potential combinations that happen when different pesticides interact in the environment or inside the human body.

Pesticides consist of “active ingredients” that kill (“cide” = death) and “inert ingredients” that help poisons stick to plants and penetrate cell walls and further into each cells tiny organelles.

Toxicologists warn that these ingredients, even at thresholds below governmental safety standards, can combine with one another to create unforeseen toxic effects that can never be fully researched, becoming Porzellanladenmolekularelefanten, or “molecular elephants in a china shop”.  When unleashed in the environment, these synthetic chemicals may combine to create new compounds that can wreak havoc in unpredictable ways. Depending on where they end up, they can kill human cells or mutate their genetic coding – and children don’t have the enzymes to protect themselves.

A pharmacist measures out medicinals in milligrams and parts per million while a farmer mixes pesticides in kilograms and liters. As any doctor or pharmacist knows, the dose makes the poison. But what if you don’t know the poison, much less the dose?

The pharmacist’s prescription of a single medicine is precise and targeted. A farmer follows manufacturers’ directions and warnings before heading out with a sprayer holding hundreds of liters of liquid pesticide transformed into aerosols comprised of tiny droplets forced out of precision jets at enormous pressures to ensure total penetration into the foliage surrounding the tractor.

But Alexander Agethle wasn’t the first farmer in the area to feel the effects of pesticide drift. The unfortunate victim was instead his neighbor, an organic dairyman named Günther Wallnörfer. In 2001, Günther transitioned his conventional dairy farm to organic in order to increase his profits and save farm from financial ruin, so he was justifiably unnerved in 2010 when the first apple orchards appeared beside his hay meadows. Besides producing organic milk, Günther and his young family were retracing their roots and using a number of different parcels to grow hay, vegetables, and grains while also raising pigs and poultry.

The region’s infamous winds soon delivered Günther an unwanted gift or Unerwünschtesnachbarschaftsgeschenk from his apple-growing neighbors: pesticides. Their drift tainted his grasslands and nearly caused his dairy cows to lose their coveted organic status. Worried that the required buffer strip of a mere three meters between his hay meadows and these new apple orchards was far from sufficient, Günther sent samples from his subsequent hay crop to be tested for pesticide residues. The analysis confirmed his worst fears: his hay was tainted by multiple pesticides. In order to maintain his organic certification, he would have to cut and dispose of that year’s entire hay crop.

Günther wasn’t sure what to do. He knew how bad the situation could become. He’d heard stories a farm further down the valley that found itself surrounded by conventional apple growers, and there was no way he could adopt their strategy for dealing with pesticide drift.

“If I find pesticides in my hay, what happens when children play next to these apple orchards?” Gunther asks. “Will pesticides be found on their playgrounds as well? We’ve done 40 pesticide residue tests over the past few years and the contamination here in the Obervinschgau (Upper Vinschgau) has always been 90% or higher. If I have a positive test [for pesticides], then a positive test again, I can lose my organic certification, even if I didn’t do anything wrong. Everyone says that organic agriculture has a future in Obervinschgau, but our future is being destroyed by pesticides.” 

Located halfway up the Vinschgau Valley, three generations of the Gluderer family transitioned from conventional apple growing and established their organic herb business, the Kräuterschlössl, in 2004. However, within a few years, apple plantations had surrounded them on all sides.

“To live with pesticides from all sides is very difficult and terrible, especially when I – as a wife, mother, and grandmother – have to think of the health of our children and grandchildren.”

– AnneMarie Gluderer, farmer

Buffer zones, hedgerows, and even ten meter high water curtains (pressurized water walls shot in the air around the perimeters of the farm when neighbors were spraying) all failed, so by 2009, pesticide drift from their neighbors forced the family to move their business inside a series of greenhouses that cost hundreds of thousands of euros. These “poison avoidance bubbles” or Giftschutzkokon are the family’s last line of defense against pesticides sprayed by neighboring apple growers.

The Gluderers’ biggest dream now is to take down their hot and stuffy greenhouses in the next decade and open their farm to the sky and the elements once again. They know there are models for growing fruit without pesticides. For their family, the future of their farm depends upon apple growers adopting successful organic production methods. Methods like those used by an organic pioneer: Ägidius Wellenzohn.

Once a conventional apple grower himself, Ägidius Wellenzohn decided three decades ago not only to stop using his spray machine but also his tractor, other than using it for a single mowing during mid-summer and in the late summer and fall for harvesting his apples, pears, grapes, and other fruits. Forgoing even the copper and sulfur used by many organic growers, Ägidius instead plants his fruits at about half the intensity of other growers. That reduction in intensity, along with using disease-resistance fruit varieties and interplanting different fruits, has been central to his success. In addition, he tries not to disturb the biodiversity of his orchard through excessive mowing, instead letting other organisms run through their normal life cycle, building fertility and providing ecological balance.

Unfortunately, since Ägidius is surrounded on three sides by conventional growers who spray their crops with toxic pesticides, his only defense is to plant hedge rows (lines of densely foliated trees) around his orchard. While not perfect, these “poison fighting trees” or Giftbekämpfungbäume manage to block most of the pesticides that would otherwise drift onto his property. He also benefits from the “pesticide withhold period” imposed upon all growers several weeks prior to harvest, which further lessens the risk that his harvest has pesticide residues once the fruit is ready to pick.

“My neighbors try to make sure nothing happens when they spray pesticides,” Ägidius notes. “but we have a saying: ‘What you don’t hold in your hands, you can’t hold.’ So what do you do with something that comes out of a sprayer?”

Outside inputs like pesticides aren’t part of Ägidius’ system. “For nature, biodiversity is a natural thing,” Ägidius observes. “It’s a natural system with many different plants, insects and other creatures that complement each other and take care of themselves without humans having to intervene. As soon as man intervenes for his own advantage, he reduces biodiversity to guarantee higher production by a certain kind of plant. But the more one-sided a system, the more it’s vulnerable, the more it depends on spraying pesticides and artificial fertilizers.

An Apfelwüste (apple desert) or apple monoculture has nothing but apples and cement posts. Not a single hedge is visible. Underneath trees, where they recently sprayed herbicides, it’s brown. The soil and surrounding area are impregnated with pesticide residues that will remain for decades to come. If I don’t do that, I have diversity, I have the cohabitation of useful creatures, insects – and all that spraying becomes superfluous.”

But Ägidius is nonetheless surrounded by farmers who think differently than he does. When he looks around him at the dense foliage of the hedgerows separating his methods from those of his neighbors, an old German saying crosses his mind: “Die Freiheit des Einzelnen hat ihre Grenzen am Recht des Nächsten” (The freedom of a single individual is bounded by the rights of his/her neighbors.) That phrase would resonate increasingly for others in Mals as the story of their ground-breaking referendum unfolded.

NEXT: Traditions Under Assault